MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “South Island”

No Kiwis in Queenstown

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m not a great fan of Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure mecca in the South Island. Don’t get me wrong, the place definitely has its virtues: after all it sits by a massive lake flanked by mountains so there’s definitely beauty and outdoor adventures on its doorstep. But the town itself does not enthrall me, being targeted towards garnering the tourist buck, and too busy for my liking (and heaven help you if you want to park anywhere!). So whilst I wouldn’t say no to a visit there, it’s not a place I feel the need to rush off to on a regular basis. Having not visited for sometime though, when I noticed in January 2017 that flights to Queenstown for Christmas 2017 were dirt cheap, I took the opportunity to book a long weekend away there. Then in February 2017 my brother announced he was flying over to visit me in November 2017 and wanted to do a road trip, and so when that Christmas break came round, I found myself in Queenstown just 5 weeks after I’d been there with him.

After finishing work for the day, I headed to the airport for an afternoon flight south from Christchurch. Queenstown airport was packed and it took a while to get the travel pass that would allow me to use the local bus network. The bus network had only been overhauled in the weeks running up to this visit and now there was a convenient and cheap bus service into town from the airport at neighbouring Frankton. It dropped me off almost opposite the hostel I was staying at which was just back from the lakefront and I checked myself into a private room. It was a nice afternoon so I didn’t take long to head back outside and wander along the promenade on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. These days, Queenstown is busy year round, but being the Christmas weekend it was especially busy. I didn’t hear a single Kiwi accent though, with tourists everywhere. Even the shops and eateries seemed to be staffed by travellers. It felt like the locals had abandoned the place and up and left, and in some respects I couldn’t blame them. It does feel a little bit like a tourist town run by tourists for tourists.

 

It was warm enough to have a little paddle in the water and I took my time meandering. At the beach, I found a spot to myself and sat down, ready to do a bit of people watching. Within minutes, a guy joined me and started chatting away. I’m a very introverted person and enjoy my solitude. I also enjoy watching the world go by at times without actually taking part in its goings on (which is why I prefer countryside and quiet places over thriving cities and large groups), so I was initially reluctant to engage too much, but eventually his persistence wore me down and I found myself passing quite a bit of time chatting. He too was travelling solo and was just looking for some company, and I had nowhere particular to be.

After a while, we parted ways, and I took a wander along the beach for a bit before turning back and heading to Fergburger, the town’s famous burger joint. Both because of its popularity as well as the increasing tourist numbers to the place, it often has a line so long as to be off-putting. My brother hadn’t wanted to join the queue whilst we had visited in November, but I was prepared to wait, and wait I did. I started quite a bit of the way up the street, and queued for about 40 minutes to get to the head of the line. Then it was about a 20 minute wait to get the food, but I knew that what was coming was worth the wait. I also always have to make at least one trip to Patagonia, the ice cream and chocolate shop, when I visit Queenstown, so I got dessert and ate it on the way back to the hostel. I’d spent the last few weeks doing a distance learning course at university, so I had to sit my last assessment online that night before retiring to bed.

 

The following day was Christmas Eve, and with this to be the best day of the long weekend for weather, I slogged my way up to the summit of Ben Lomond. I returned via the Gondola building where I caught my breath a little over looking the lake and town below. By the time I hiked down to the town via the Tiki trail, things were starting to close up and it took quite a bit of wandering to find somewhere open to grab some takeaway. My partner was working over the Christmas holiday which was why I was on my own. I didn’t so much mind that day, but this was to be the first time I’d spent Christmas day on my own in about a decade. Even on Christmas Eve, all I could see around me were families and friends. I might be an introvert, but sometimes even I can get a little lonely.

 

I woke to torrential rain on Christmas morning. In the hostel kitchen, a large group of friends were having a party, so after eating, I retreated to my room and read a magazine. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep and when I awoke, it was dry and the morning was gone. By the time I forced myself to go outside, the sky was blue and the clouds were dissipating and suddenly it was a glorious Southern Hemisphere sunny day. People were out having picnics and being social and relaxing everywhere. The green spaces and beach were covered in people chilling out. Kids paddled in the water, and there was a man on a jet pack performing in the lake nearby. I could see a crowd of people on the main beach in town and it turned out that the backpacker buses had got together and arranged a backpackers party on the beach. The numbers increased as time wore on and I could see santa hats mingled with bikinis and rubber rings and floaties on the water as the party spilled over into the lake. I bypassed them to reach the Botanic Gardens.

 

The TSS Earnslaw made its regular passage to and from the waterfront, and I joined the steady stream of people out for a stroll along the foreshore. The clouds never fully retreated but the sunshine was still able to beat down for the most part and after soaking up the views and listening to the music drift on the wind, I found myself at the far end of the peninsula, stepping down onto some rocks and duly falling asleep. It’s rare for me to be lazy when I’m way from home, so it was a nice change to just doze under the sun and rest up after the previous day’s exertion. When it eventually grew cooler, I continued round the peninsula and cut up to the gardens, wandering around the blooms before eventually cutting back to the beach where the backpacker party was still in full swing. Taking my time to return to the hostel, it was soon time to enjoy my Christmas platter and wine.

 

Boxing Day was a rather moody day with a bit of wind and clouds in the air. The beach seemed so quiet compared to the day before but the streets and eateries were bustling. I found a table in a cafe away from the lake and enjoyed a tasty brunch before wandering around the crammed shops with their Boxing Day sales, and back to the lakefront where I hovered for a while. The sun had returned and people were spilling out on the streets as the hours passed. Eventually it was time to head back to the airport and return north to Christchurch and work the next day. I may find the town’s crowds a little suffocating, but I had achieved a summit that I had wanted to hike for some time, and I’d also caught up on some much needed relaxation, so perhaps the place can’t be all that bad really.

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New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

The inevitably of New Zealand being settled by the British is that there are a lot of common place names between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When I discovered that there was a mountain called Ben Lomond, it seemed only natural that I should hike it when the opportunity arose, even though at the time I hadn’t even summited its Scottish namesake. In 2016, I made it up to the cloudy and wet summit of Scotland’s munro, and finally the time came in December 2017 to summit New Zealand’s version which dominates the skyline over Queenstown in Otago.

My original plan had been to hike up on Christmas Day. By this stage 6 years into my life in the Southern Hemisphere, it is still a novelty to have Christmas in the summer, and with my partner on shift work through the holiday season, I was spending the festive days on my own. But the weather forecast wasn’t the best for Christmas Day so I made the decision to hike on Christmas Eve instead and I was rewarded with a glorious day for it.

The track starts a little past the YHA Lakefront hostel where I was staying, almost immediately before entering Fernhill. A track and road cut away from the lakeside to reach a historic power house. From here, the One Mile track begins its zigzag through the dense forest, and this is also one of the routes up to the Skyline Gondola. I’d walked this track already with my brother the month before so it was familiar and for the most part well marked and obvious. The day my brother and I had walked it last time, we’d cut down to a waterfall and ended up having to rough it a bit to rejoin the track. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.

 

At a small dam on Wynyard Creek, the track turns upwards towards the mountain bike park, and from here onwards, the mountain bike trails criss cross the walking track at regular intervals meaning having to keep your ears open to avoid being taken out by a zealous rider. The forest here reminded me greatly of some of the cultivated forests in Scotland, the trees bare of leaves and the ground littered with pine cones. It is so different from the wild bush that I’m more accustomed to when out hiking in New Zealand. The forest opens up a little where the service road to the Gondola cuts through it and soon after, the Ben Lomond walkway begins and I was plunged back into the forest once more. The view was a little monotonous until eventually the tree-line was reached and from here onwards I was totally exposed to the elements.

 

Now, the summit of Ben Lomond was in sight and as I worked my way up the track, it became clear that it was going to be a populated hike. After a few bends, Lake Wakatipu came into view behind me, and some distance later, a side-track to the Skyline Gondola cut away. Then the long slog began as the curve of the mountain was followed, the lake growing larger behind me and Ben Lomond being a constant at my side. Despite the ever gain in altitude, the summit failed to look like it was getting any closer, and as the time passed, I came to realise how much I’d let my general fitness slide. I’m an avid hiker, but the last couple of years I hadn’t done as much summer hiking as previously, and I’d allowed myself to gain quite a bit of weight. Even before I was half-way up, I was sweating buckets and feeling like I was making slow progress.

 

After a few lower ridges of increasing altitude, the track finally reached the saddle at 1316m (4317ft) where the track makes a T-junction: the Ben Lomond summit track to the left, and the Moonlight track to the right. There was a bit of a congregation of hikers here, and for the first time, I could see over into the valley and mountains behind Ben Lomond. This is a world that is very much hidden from Queenstown and all I could see was the mountains of the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. Now I turned to face the summit push, and watched the dots of people in the distance grow smaller and smaller.

 

The summit track was tough going and I was finally realising that I needed to work on getting myself back in shape. But the view was spectacular with the mountain ranges to my right, and Lake Wakatipu to my left. Initially the track followed the brow of the ridge but eventually at about 1600m (5249ft), the track skirted behind the summit and became much more rough under foot. Most of the hike till now had been following a wide path, but here it was narrow, and where people came the other way, it necessitated balancing off the track to let them pass. I could see a large boulder field grow nearer and before I knew it I was amongst them, diligently following the route to the other side.

 

Now the dark water of Moke Lake came into view and as I curved round a little below the summit, Lake Wakatipu popped back into view as well, and finally I just had the last little incline to reach the busy and rocky summit of Ben Lomond (1748m/5735ft). The summit was so busy in fact that it was hard to find a spot to take a seat and people were wandering around taking photos, with bags strewn around the place. I ended up with a great view over Frankton and Lake Wakatipu to enjoy my lunch. Queenstown itself was almost totally hidden from view but I could see the tiny shape of the TSS Earnslaw steamship ploughing the waters between the town and the station on the far side of the lake. I took my time at the summit, enjoying the sunshine and the view. I normally hate busy trails but this time I actually quite enjoyed listening to the chatter and the buzz from everyone who was at the summit. It was a real mix of seasoned hikers who’d found it relatively easy, and those who were so proud of themselves for making it to the top when it had been tough for them.

 

The descent to the saddle was relatively quick despite the still steady stream of people hiking upwards that necessitated pausing on the trail. I didn’t linger at the saddle too long before retracing my steps back down the mountainside. This time I took the side track to cut across to the Skyline Gondola. I was tired and my legs were sore, and this section felt longer than it probably was. I was relieved to finally reach the Skyline Gondola terminal where hordes of people were everywhere ogling over the famous view. After pausing here for a while, I took the steep Tiki trail back through the forest down the hillside. My legs were really feeling the steepness and I was a little jelly-legged by the time I made it back into Queenstown about 8hrs after I left it, but I was thoroughly satisfied to have ticked another New Zealand summit off my list.

Spring Roadie – Glacier Country

Being one of the wettest parts of the country, receiving the brunt of the weather that swings across the Tasman Sea, it is best to expect rain when on New Zealand’s west coast. Anything better is a bonus. The two times I’ve visited Glacier Country, the region around Fox glacier and Franz Josef glacier, the peaks of the Southern Alps have been shrouded by cloud and out of view. On my last visit here in 2016, my partner and I had stayed in Franz Josef, the bigger of the two villages, but this time round, with my brother, we stayed in Fox Glacier village, the southern of the two. My brother had planned on doing a heli-hike onto Fox glacier, his one big-ticket expense whilst he was over from Scotland visiting me. As I had done it with my partner last time, I was leaving him to it, planning on doing a walk to the glacier instead. So whilst my brother had an early rise to gobble down breakfast and get going, I had a relative lie-in and took my time getting up.

The weather out the window looked dubious, so I wasn’t fully surprised when my brother arrived back about an hour later, his trip having been canned due to weather concerns. I felt bad on his behalf but he shrugged it off. So we set off to do the hike together, making the short drive out of the village and up the valley to the start of the hike. By now mid-morning, it was a busy car park with a lot of people on the trail. Cutting through the scree-filled valley below some steep sided mountains, the clouds hung over the mountain tops, and waterfalls trickled down the slopes at varying intervals. There were rockfall warnings and flash-flood warnings dotted along the trail. Initially I couldn’t understand why the company had voted to cancel the trip as blue sky was visible, as was the top of the glacier, but as we walked further up the valley, the cloud closed in and dropped down. With tourists having been trapped up on the glacier in the past due to inclement weather, the company was taking no chances.

 

The walk was easy and pleasant, only becoming steep on the final section that rises up to the viewing spot. Like many glaciers, those of the Southern Alps are retreating and retreating fast. Eventually, loss of large ice shelves such as those of the poles will be the main cause of sea level rise, but currently it is these mountain glaciers. I hadn’t visited Fox glacier last time so had nothing to compare it to, but photos and markers on the glacier walks really demonstrate how different the glaciers looked a decade ago, never mind a century ago. It is sad to think how much further change will occur in my lifetime. Nonetheless, the view of Fox glacier at our visit in November 2017 was still impressive, and the off-white pillars on the leading face of the glacier were striking. On approach, the sight of the tiny people in the foreground against the towering glacier face was staggering. Once at the viewing spot, the glacier was some distance away. Only with a guide is it possible to get closer, but due to a combination of tourist deaths in the past as well as the retreat of the glacier face over time, it is not an option to walk up to or onto the foot of either glacier.

 

On our return, we took the drive back to the village and out the other side for the short distance to Lake Matheson. The reflections of the mountains on this lake is one of the country’s most famous photography locations, but with that pesky west coast weather, it is either pure fluke or a lot of patience to get the reward of that famous view for yourself. Both my 2016 and 2017 visits to this lake coincided with inclement weather, so not only were the tops of the mountains not visible, but the reflectivity of the lake surface was reduced and less effective under a grey sky. Nonetheless, it is still a nice wee walk around the lake, and the visitor centre has a lovely cafe for lunch.

 

Instead of heading back to the village, we continued along the road to the coast. The last section of this road is unsealed, and winding, but Gillespies Beach is a nice beach to take a walk on at the end of it, and the weather is often better here, being far enough away from the mountain-hugging clouds to make a difference. As such, it was slightly better weather when we got there and looking at the walks in the area, my brother suggested we take the long route to visit a fur seal colony quite some distance north. I’d walked part of this track before, but not the full route, so was more than happy to go with the suggestion. Passing the remnants of some old mines, the track travelled through the bush for some distance before cutting down to the beach a little before Quinlin Creek. This beach was the classic stony west coast beach, making for an awkward meander as we followed the beach to the mouth of the creek. Full of tannin, this dark river snaked upstream, and we followed its bank until some boardwalks took us across it.

 

From the far side onwards, we were fully immersed in bush, with no view to speak of for the most of it. Not only that, but the canopy above us meant that sections of the track were not drying out and time and time again we had to negotiate muddy quagmires. Despite my initial enthusiasm to get to the seal colony, and my usual enjoyment of hiking, I have to admit that as time went on I really started to hate this walk. Normally the Department of Conservation (DOC) signs that accompany most hikes in New Zealand are over generous with hiking times for someone of my fitness, and as such I’ve come to assume that I’ll do these walks in less than the suggested time. So I was irked when the displayed time for the hike came and went and there was no sign of imminent arrival at the beach we were heading to. We’d only past 2 other people coming the other way, and their response on inquiry about the remaining distance had not filled me with much reassurance. When at last we reached the steep descent down to the beach, I was both relieved as much as disappointed that we had so much distance to travel back on.

My brother kept his feelings internal. I’m not sure if he was bothered or not, or just enjoyed the exercise. It’s not often I find a walk disappointing or frustrating but at least there was a fur seal swimming in the water for my brother to see, although no sign of a colony as the sign had suggested. On our return leg, we took a side-track to an old mine which was effectively a tunnel dug through the rocks. As we came back through and down the track we stumbled across a stoat which came bounding towards us then quickly disappeared. As much as I know they are a pest species, and a destructive one at that, I can’t help being excited when I spot wildlife, even if conservationists would like to see them eradicated. The introduction of so many pest species has been the cause of extinction of, or endangerment of, many of New Zealand’s native fauna. This country is a good example of what mess humans can make when they meddle in the natural order of things.

 

The next morning was as inclement as the day before. Again the mountain tops were hidden from view and it was clear that there was no point in my brother trying again for the heli-hike that day. We took the drive through the mountain pass to Franz Josef and headed up the valley road to the start of the glacier walk. This one I had done before on the 2016 visit, and there had been some slight upgrades to the path since then. Unlike the Fox glacier walk, the track is rather more undulating in the first section, climbing up over a hillock before dropping down to the level of the river. The clouds rose and lifted as we walked, giving intermittent glimpses of blue sky and the glacier top. Immediately on arrival to the glacier viewing spot I could see a difference in the glacier front. There may only have been 22 months between the 2 visits but I was convinced there had been a visible retreat. I couldn’t quite put my finger on where or how, but there was a definite feeling of change. It wasn’t until we’d gotten home a few days later and I was able to compare photographs that I could prove there was definitely a difference.

 

As we walked back to the car, we stopped at the waterfalls on route and took a side-track to a viewing spot at the top of a hillock. As an adult I’ve discovered quite an interest in geology, including doing some distance learning courses on the subject. New Zealand is a fascinating country for geology enthusiasts with all sorts of natural forces in play to shape and mould the geography. So I love the glacier paths of the South Island as much as the volcanic rifts and historical lava flows of the North Island. All along the valley walls were clear signs of the wear that the weight of the ice has carved into the rocks as it previously flowed down the valley many years ago. Back in the car, we drove past the signs on the road that mark the end of the glacier in the years gone by, a sad indicator of the rate of retreat.

 

After lunch in Franz Josef village, it was time to push northwards. Past Lake Mapourika, we took the turn-off down to Okarito where a lagoon harbours wetland birds and kiwi spotting may be possible at night. There was a choice of walks from here and we decided to cut across the wetlands and up to the view overlooking them. I was only wearing my jandals (flip flops), so wasn’t really best suited to go onwards, but my brother wanted to keep walking to the trig view point up the hill, so I tagged along anyway, inwardly realising I was one of those hikers that I’ve often rolled my eyes at when out hiking in the mountains: the under-prepared hiker in inappropriate footwear. It was rather sore under foot and not the best grip on the steeper sections, so I was glad when we finally made it to the top and I could give my feet a rest. From the viewpoint we could see just how large the Okarito lagoon to the north was and to the south, the smaller Three Mile Lagoon was also evident, the end-point of a longer walk that we didn’t have time for.

 

Hitting the road yet again, I was finding the driving a bit tiring after multiple days of long distance driving in a row. Even with the regular stops it was still a drag. I’m stubborn though and was intent on letting my brother enjoy the scenery unhindered, so insisted on doing all the driving. However as we got stuck behind a lorry on a particularly winding section, I took my chance to overtake on a slow vehicle passing lane but underestimated the power of my car to gain speed up the hill. Before I knew it, the lane was running short and the lorry readied to pull back in when I was still halfway along side it. I made a split second decision to make a manoeuvre that got us past the lorry but at great risk. I don’t think my brother realised what I did as it was over before he knew it but being prone to anxiety I immediately went into a panic for not driving to my normal standards and found myself having to pull in at a lake side to calm myself down. I felt like an idiot and spent the rest of the afternoon apologising to my brother. He seemed bemused and rather confused about the whole incident, neither understanding the road rules here, nor appreciating why I’d gotten myself into such a state. With me living so far away from my family for many years, they have been spared the sight of me going through my occasional bouts of mental illness. It was with great relief when we eventually reached our destination for the night that evening, but getting closer to home, we both started to realise how close to the end our road trip really was.

Spring Roadie – Queenstown to Milford Sound

Three and a half years after my last visit, when I had come to hike my first multi-day walk in New Zealand, I found myself back in Te Anau, having driven from Queenstown through rain and arrived in cloud. The area of Fiordland National Park and its immediate surroundings is the wettest part of the country and it is said that you should go there expecting rain, with anything better being a bonus. Last time round I’d managed to miss the worst of the weather whilst walking the Kepler Track and had then been rewarded with a glorious day in Milford Sound. The drive to Te Anau was the first bad weather my brother had experienced since arriving in the country for the first time, and I was inwardly concerned about what we would get the next day. But we busied ourselves with dinner ahead of an early night; an early rise was to follow.

The Milford Highway is one of the most stunning drives in the country, and also one of the busiest. Milford Sound may be at the end of a long dead-end road but it is top of many a tourist’s wish list and so its worth planning the best time to tackle the drive to avoid the bulk of the crowds. I knew from last time that it was best to head off in darkness, get the drive out the way to catch the morning boat trip, and then take your time driving back, stopping at all the highlights on the way. I convinced my brother that this was the best choice, and so we duly set off at dawn. The mist was incredible and I wished I wasn’t driving so that I could take some photos of it, but at least my brother got to soak it in, and I glanced at it often when I was able to take my eyes off the winding road. The sweeping Eglinton Valley was spectacular with the mist, and it only started to disappear once we were more nestled amongst the mountains.

We stopped at Pop’s View Lookout for a breakfast snack overlooking Mount Christina and the Hollyford Valley. There was snow on the peaks poking up in the background, and somewhere hidden nearby was Lake Marion, out of sight. As we continued onwards, I noticed there had been a few road upgrades since I’d last been there and by the time we reached the entrance to Homer Tunnel, we had made good time. My attention was grabbed by some kea on a car parked by the road so I pulled over for my brother to get a look. Immediately a kea flew over and landed on the roof as my brother watched it. I suddenly realised my brother had left the passenger car door open as the kea hopped onto it and eyeballed me inside. I adore kea, the cheeky alpine parrot that is endemic in New Zealand, but with their cheekiness comes a destructive inquisitiveness and I had visions of it coming in the car and causing havoc. I called to my brother to close the door, the bird hopping back onto the roof as he did. We enjoyed the close encounter, surrounded by the steep mountains of the alps. Moving around the car to photograph the kea from a different angle, I realised too late, and to my dismay, that my brother hadn’t closed the door properly, and I cried out as the kea’s sharp beak bit a hole in the door’s rubber seal.

 

Driving through the Homer Tunnel, dripping with water from the roof onto the uneven ground below, and emerging at the far end to the steep mountain sides flanking the valley below, is an utter sight to behold. I was excited that the day was clearly a gloriously sunny one, and for the second time, I was lucky to experience the wettest part of the country on a beautiful sunny day. I was so glad that my brother got to experience the sunshine too. We finally pulled in at Milford Sound where the car park was starting to fill up for the day. We had picked the quieter time to take a boat trip there, but Milford Sound is far from quiet with a plethora of cruise options attracting plenty of tourists at all times of the day.

The foreshore walk from the car park to the ferry terminal offers one of the classic viewing spots across to Mitre Peak, the mountain peak that the area is famous for. Adorning every postcard and promotion material you can come across, the lighting wasn’t at its best at that time of the day, but with the tide in, the mountain reflected well in the water. We were nearly at the terminal when I realised I’d left the ferry ticket in the car and I had to run back through a sea of people coming against me, to grab it. I was knackered by the time I made it back to my brother, where he informed me that he’d checked us in without it. As we waited to board, we were the last boat to load and we discovered that our boat had been changed to a smaller vessel. I didn’t think anything of it, but my brother seemed disappointed, and I realised that this must have been a part of the trip that he was really looking forward to and the limited space on the boat concerned him that it would be overcrowded.

 

In the end though, I think he quickly forgot this as we got going. With the blue sky, sunshine and stunning scenery, it would have been hard to hold a grudge for long. Crossing first to the base of Mitre Peak, our boat joined the procession of tour boats that were ploughing the same route along the western slopes. The sides of the fjord are steep and covered in thick green vegetation, broken intermittently where a waterfall cascades down from somewhere on high. After heavy rain the waterfalls increase in number and strength, but even on a dry day, there were plenty to see. Passing a New Zealand fur seal hauled out on some rocks, we waited our turn to point the bow underneath one of the waterfalls, soaking the people at the front of the boat. Then, a little further along, some rare Fiordland Crested penguins were spotted on rocks and we hovered by them for some time. The bow of the boat quickly became packed with people desperate to take photos but my brother remained at the stern. I was surprised he would let himself miss out on the opportunity to see them, but assumed he was irked by the sudden squash of people on the small boat. It turned out he could see them just fine as the boat had angled enough to the side, and so he spotted his first ever wild penguins.

 

Eventually we found ourselves at the entrance to the fjord, staring out at the Tasman Sea, and here the boat sat for a while, bobbing around on the waves as my brother got to see the west coast for the first time. When we headed back into the fjord, the boat hugged the opposite side which was mostly in the shade. This was the compromise for the morning boat trip in November: the sun wasn’t high enough to light up both flanks. But it was still a gorgeous view, and my brother was able to get a close up of some New Zealand fur seals, another creature that’s different from the wildlife of Scotland. Then a little further into the fjord, a call went up that dolphins were about. I wasn’t expecting them and was caught off guard, and both of us scrambled over to the edge to look, catching an all-too-brief sighting before they disappeared out of view.

 

As we approached Harrison Cove, the view opened up a little to reveal the snowy peak of Mount Pembroke. Nestled within the cove is the underwater discovery centre that I had stopped at on my last trip here. This time round we were skipping this, and passing the cove signalled that the tour was almost over. As we cruised back to the ferry terminal, the familiar face of Mitre Peak crept back into view as Bowen Falls gushed down in the shadows to our side. There was still so much ahead of us that day, but it had been a cracking start and I’m pretty sure my brother enjoyed his sail through New Zealand’s most famous fjord.

Spring Roadie: Mount Cook to Queenstown

My brother and I awoke to a sunny morning, however the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. Mount Cook village is nestled amongst some of the tallest mountains in the country, close to the west coast, and as such, the area is privy to its own weather system, and at the mercy of the cloud systems. Luckily my brother had had plenty of opportunity to see Aoraki/Mount Cook the previous day, because we were not to see it again on our trip. I love this part of the country because it is surrounded by mountains, littered with walking and hiking trails, and due to being at the end of a very long dead-end road, it feels secluded and a bit less touristy than some of the rest of the South Island. I’ve visited a few times previously, including a visit where the village was surrounded by snow. The most recent visit prior to this one with my brother was to attempt to hike up to the Mueller Hut, high up in the mountains above the village, but I was a bit early in the season to go up, and wasn’t prepared for the snow in the upper reaches, thus being thwarted.

With an action packed 10 days of South Island driving to get through, my brother had selected the Hooker Valley track as his walk to do in the National Park. It is one of the country’s most popular walks, leading across alpine vegetation from the village to the lake at the base of Aoraki. We left the village in sunshine, but the clouds were falling over the mountain tops all around us, and it was clear the weather would close in as we progressed along the hike. There were plenty of other people on the trail that day, and we made good time treading along the well-maintained path. Some of the alpine flowers were starting to bloom, which along with the glacier lakes and nearby river, were a ready distraction as we hiked. As we neared the final rise at the end of the trail, spots of rain began and accompanied us as we reached the viewing area of the lake and Aoraki. The bulk of the mountain was hidden behind the cloud, which was a shame, but there was plenty of iceberg activity below to look at.

 

A path leads down the scree to the lakeside and this is the place to go for a close up of the icebergs. The rain was driving into us a little here which made it cold, so we hid in the lee of a large boulder whilst we had a snack, popping out briefly to take photos and pick up shards of ice. This was my brother’s first experience of icebergs, and it made me realise how much I’ve gotten used to the New Zealand landscapes in the 6 years I’ve lived here. I certainly don’t take it for granted, ever in awe when I see the glacier lakes, the towering mountains and the braided rivers, but I’d certainly forgotten what it was like to see these things for the first time. Whilst New Zealand has many similarities to Scotland, there are enough differences to make you appreciate you’re somewhere different.

 

By the time we had returned to the village, the clouds had closed in a little more. I had wanted to take my brother to the nearby Tasman glacier lake, but it was clear as we passed the turnoff that there would be nothing but cloud to see if we went, so it wasn’t worth wasting any more time. We had a few hours driving ahead to reach Queenstown, so by late morning we were on the road. Down the long stretch of road past Lake Pukaki, and onwards to the south, we had lunch in Twizel before continuing. There is a definite change in landscape as you follow the inland road south, and a somewhat desert quality starts to creep in. A little north of Omarama, I drove off the main road and headed along a dirt track, past an honesty box at the gate onto private property, and onwards to the Clay Cliffs. I’ve driven past the sign for these every other time I’ve been through this way, and so this was the first time I’d actually visited.

From the car park, an obvious track leads up to the base of the cliffs which stood distinctively like pinnacles against the blue sky. We had returned to sunshine, and meandered into the gaps between the peaks. It initially looked like there was an obvious path to follow, but after an initial climb and slide up loose scree, it became quite clear that the path petered out and became vague and loose under foot. Some people ahead of us sent a wake of loose stone in our direction and we did the same to those behind us. In the end, we backtracked a little, picked a different route through then once again reached an impasse. It felt like we were in some kind of foreign desert landscape and I was glad to have finally visited. My brother enjoyed squirrelling around the place also, and we found more paths to follow, away from the main track, as we slowly made our way back to the car park.

 

Continuing south, we cut through Omarama and onwards to Lindis Pass, one of the many mountain passes that New Zealand has. At 971m (3186ft), the Lindis Pass is the highest road pass in the South Island. The vegetation here is rather scrubby, which makes the view a little uninteresting to me, but at the top is a viewpoint where you can stop to look back at the road already travelled. From here, the drive down the other side towards Cromwell is windy, and we snaked our way down the hill, eventually arriving at Lake Dunstan which the road hugs all the way to Cromwell. We stopped briefly by the lake shore and also the giant fruit in Cromwell’s town centre, but the shadows were already starting to lengthen, accentuated by the steep mountain sides that flank the Kawarau Gorge on route to Queenstown. I’ve never had the opportunity to stop anywhere in the gorge before, and didn’t really know where was worth stopping at, so apart from a brief pull-in near a power station, we pushed on, arriving in Queenstown by the late afternoon.

 

Nestled around the shores of the large expanse of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is an odd place. The main settlement is sandwiched between the lake and the mountains and as such sits in shadow for the latter part of the day. Kelvin Heights across the Frankton Arm of the lake is better situated for sunshine hours. Queenstown will always be an immense drawcard for many, with nearby ski fields for winter lovers, adrenalin activities on its doorstep, water sports and hiking within easy reach and a plethora of bars and eateries to choose from. I however, am not one of its fans. I’ll happily visit it from time to time, but it is overcrowded and eager to part you with your cash. We were staying along the lakeshore away from the main drag which was great, and it was a pleasant walk along the lakefront as the sun was lowering. We went for dinner at The Cow, one of my favourite places to eat in town, and afterwards, I always find it impossible not to visit Patagonia, a chocolate and ice cream shop that sells divine ice cream. I didn’t need it, but I sure did my best to shove the cold chocolatey delight down my gob.

 

The next morning was one of sunshine, and we had another morning hike planned. Although Queenstown has a gondola, it is also possible to hike up the hillside to the viewing platform, rather than pay the fee for the gondola. So as we are both avid walkers, and by way of saving money, we left our accommodation that morning and picked our way up into the forest behind the hostel. Ironically, before my brother had announced his visit to New Zealand, I’d already booked to fly to Queenstown for Christmas, in order to hike Ben Lomond, the tall mountain immediately behind the lake. So a month before I’d be back to hike it, we found ourselves on the Ben Lomond track which eventually joins up with the road up to the gondola building. Some old pipes litter the track and as we found ourselves at a waterfall, the route became a little unclear. I discovered when I was back in December that we had taken a wrong turn, but we did eventually make our way back to the proper path.

The route eventually breaks out into the mountain bike park that is scattered across the hillside. Here the Ben Lomond track separates from the road to the gondola building and we had to keep our eyes and ears open as the bike tracks regularly cut across in front of us. There were plenty of bikes out on the trails, whizzing past us at speed at regular intervals. Finally, the familiar view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu opened up below us, and we were back amongst the crowds jostling around the viewing spots. With the ziplines, luge and bungy jump, this was a good example of how you could spend a lot of money here, but we simply meandered around and watched as people either raced down the tracks in their little carts or chucked themselves off a platform. At the time of visiting in November, there was plenty of work being done here to upgrade the facilities and this made a couple of spots extra busy, but we did manage to get some spots of grass to ourselves to soak up the view.

 

We hiked down via the Tiki trail which brought us out at the back of town. Picking our way through the streets, we stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking a square, and then headed into the Queenstown gardens. The blue skies had been replaced by clouds, but the mountain tops were still clear so despite the change in outlook, we still had a great view over to the summits. It is a lovely walk along the lake foreshore round the little peninsula, and is another example of a free thing to do in Queenstown. In fact, if you don’t mind using your own two feet, there are several free things you can do here. Once on the far side of the peninsula, overlooking the Frankton Arm, we cut up onto the hill in the middle and into the compact Botanic Gardens. Being springtime, there were plenty of flowers in bloom to look at and we both found plenty to take photographs of.

 

We walked back to the car parked far around the lakefront and although we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to Glenorchy, I took my brother to Bennet’s Bluff lookout about half way there where there is a stunning view across the lake. The cloud detracted from it a little, but the steely colour of the water was still stunning and it was worthwhile taking the detour. We weren’t to see any sun for the rest of the day, and on return to Queenstown, I drove through it and out the other side, cutting across the Kawarau river bridge tracking south. Hugging the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu for some distance, we hit rain as we continued onwards on our South Island road trip.

Christchurch Short Walks

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my home city, Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. Following the destructive earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, so much has changed, and whilst slow at first, the transformation of the Garden City feels like it has accelerated of late. When I first moved to Christchurch in February 2012, the city centre was fenced off and guarded by the army, just 1 street away from where I ended up living. Fast forward 6 years, and the city centre is once again open for business with an overwhelming number of eateries and bars opening up at a regular rate. The retail heart of the city is well on its way to being complete, and following shortly are entertainment zones, and further in the future, the new sports facilities. But there’s more to see here than just the city itself, with a plethora of short walks in the region.

 

 

CHRISTCHURCH CITY CENTRE

Ease of access: Pick your city car park or bus in to the central bus terminal

Time: As little or as long as you want, with plenty of places to eat and drink to break up the walk

The city centre walk can be tailored to what you want to focus on – street art, shopping, city highlights, or city parks are a few examples. The city centre is demarcated by the four avenues: Deans Avenue to the west, Bealey Avenue to the north, Fitzgerald Avenue to the east, and Moorhouse Avenue to the south. From the Bus Interchange, cross Litchfield Street and cut through the Crossings to reach Cashel Street and follow this west through the retail zone to the Bridge of Remembrance on the Avon river. Follow the river south past the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, and continue along the river bank to the Punting on the Avon huts and into the beautiful Botanic Gardens. Wander here to your heart’s content, exploring North Hagley Park too if desired, then exiting the Botanic Gardens via the Canterbury Museum entrance and following Worcester Boulevard past the Arts Centre and Christchurch Art Gallery before crossing back over the Avon River and arriving at Cathedral Square. From here, cut up through Cathedral Junction to the colourful New Regent Street then turn east to reach the Margaret Mahy Family Playground. Past here at the City Mini Golf, head south to Latimer Square, and beyond to the Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, and south past here the collection of white chairs that represents everyone who died in the 2011 earthquake. Then either cut down to Tuam Street to explore the popular Little High Eatery or C1 cafe, or cut along Litchfield Street to Dux Central before returning to the Bus Interchange.

 

HAGLEY PARK & THE BOTANICAL GARDENS

Ease of access: Walk from the city centre car parks or the central bus terminal; Catch the city tram and alight at stop 12; take bus 17 and alight at Christ’s College

Time: As little or as long as you want, especially on a sunny day when a bit of sunbathing in the gardens is a great way to pass some time

Enter North Hagley Park at the corner of Rolleston Avenue and Armagh Street and follow the river bank path north to Harper Avenue where the path turns west through the tall trees at the park margin. In spring, this avenue is lined with beautiful blooming cherry blossoms. At Deans Avenue, continue through the trees heading south until the park ends at Riccarton Avenue. Rather than sticking to the road, take the path cutting diagonally back through the park, past the rugby pitches and croquet lawns to Victoria Lake. From here, cut round the lake in either direction to the bridge across the Avon river next to the car park. Now in the Botanical Gardens, wander around as much or as little of the paths as desired before returning to Rolleston Avenue via any of the exits.

 

TRAVIS WETLAND NATURE HERITAGE PARK

Ease of access: The main car park is on the eastern side, accessed from the junction of Mairehau Road and Beach Road, although there is off-street parking also available on the northern aspect; Catch bus 60 and alight on Travis Road then walk the Clarevale Loop walkway to reach the wetlands from the south; Catch bus O and alight on Mairehau Road on the northern aspect of the wetlands

Time: The circuit walk takes about an hour without stopping, but with plenty of birdlife to spot, it’s worth meandering at a slow pace

From the main car park, follow the track south and stop in at the bird hide to watch the comings and goings of the birds. As you head south, the main water course will remain on your right and soon the wetland pastures open up on the left with a view across to the Port Hills beyond. At the southern end of the path, go through the gate and take the Clarevale Loop walkway west past the houses until a gate returns you to the wetlands where the path turns north, following a boardwalk. At the northern limit, the path continues to loop clockwise back towards the car park.

 

NEW BRIGHTON BEACH

Ease of access: There are plenty of parking options along the length of Marine Parade with beach access at staggered intervals; New Brighton is served by buses 60, 135, and Y

Time: Walk as much or as little of this 18km stretch of beach as desired

My favourite route is to head out first on New Brighton pier, the 300 metre long structure that gives a good view point along the beach to the north and the south. Then from the car park just south of the library, a dune walk heads south towards the South Brighton Surf Life Saving Club where it cuts down to the beach. The dune walk restarts beyond the nearby reserve, reaching almost all the way to the spit, or the beach can be followed instead. Depending on the tide, the Shag Pile rocks across the estuary mouth can look deceptively within reach, but the current is strong here and is too dangerous to cross. Return to the pier by the beach.

 

SUMNER PROMENADE

Ease of access: The drive east through Redcliffs and Moncks Bay and round the coast can occasionally be a bit of a bottleneck on sunny summer’s days, and parking by the waterfront in Sumner can also be at a premium on the weekends; Sumner is served by bus P

Time: Walk as much or as little of the beach as you want

The beach is divided into the Sumner sand bar which has the Shag Pile rocks and estuary mouth to the west and Cave Rock to the east; and Scarborough beach which is backed by the promenade and Scarborough Park. Scarborough beach is completely under water at high tide, as is the cave, but at low tide, the cave can be walked through from one side to the other, and a path up to the summit of Cave Rock offers a great panorama along the beach in both directions.

 

TAYLORS MISTAKE/GODLEY HEAD

Ease of access: Drive through Sumner to the east, then wind up and over the hill to Taylors Mistake on the other side. The road ends at the car park behind the beach which can be packed to the seams on weekends. There is no public transport to Taylors Mistake

Time: The full circuit takes about 3 hours and is fully exposed to the elements. Water and sun cream is strongly advised.

From the car park, enter the field to the east or cut down to the beach and head towards the copse of trees where the walkway begins. It follows the contours of the coast, gaining and losing altitude as it goes. Eventually it snakes up towards an old World War II battery and from here it passes the entrance of a Department of Conservation campsite before cutting back to the coast at the mouth of Lyttelton Harbour, where it passes more WWII war relics. Finally it ends at a car park on Summit Road. Returning to Taylors Mistake can be by retracing your steps, or cross Summit Road and take the track directly opposite the car park or follow the Anaconda track, a shared walking/biking track that cuts across the headland taking a slightly more direct route back to Taylors Mistake.

 

BRIDLE PATH

Ease of access: Can be walked from Ferrymead to Lyttelton or vice versa – a small car park is close to the base of the Christchurch Gondola, or park in Lyttelton; A shuttle bus to the Christchurch Gondola leaves from outside the Canterbury Museum in the city centre; Bus 28 serves both the Christchurch Gondola car park as well as Lyttelton

Time: A reasonably fit person can walk from one side of the hill to another in about 60 – 90 minutes. The route is steep and uneven under foot.

It’s a steep and winding slog up the hill regardless of the direction that you walk it. The view north is over the estuary and the eastern suburbs of the city with the Southern Alps on the horizon. The view south is over Lyttelton and across the harbour to the Banks Peninsula. At the top of the Port Hills, the track reaches Summit Road which is closed to traffic at this section. A side trip from here is to head up to the building at the top of the Gondola where there is a cafe and viewing deck. Return the same way or catch the bus back.

 

RAPAKI TRACK

Ease of access: In the suburb of Huntsbury, Rapaki Road is reached from Centaurus Road. Parking is up this narrow dead-end road which can get quite crowded; Bus 145 passes by the bottom of Rapaki Road

Time: Depending on fitness and time spent admiring the summit view, expect to take about 90 minutes return

From the top end of Rapaki Road, the track cuts through a small copse of trees before breaking out into Mount Vernon Park, where for the rest of the walk it is completely exposed to the elements as it winds its way up the side of a valley. This is a very popular walk and is shared use between walkers and bikers which can actually make it feel a little crowded at times. With an initial incline, the middle section is flat before the final push up the hill takes you to summit road where the view on the far side is down over Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour. Return via the same route.

 

QUAIL ISLAND

Ease of access: Reached by Black Cats ferry from Lyttelton (seasonal). Lyttelton is reached by car via the tunnel through the Port Hills from the city or via the Governor’s Bay road; Lyttelton is served by bus 28

Time: The circuit walk is listed by the Department of Conservation as 2.5hrs but there is a shorter loop or it’s just a short walk from the ferry jetty to a swimming bay and picnic spot

The circuit walk provides an overview of the island’s former uses with old stables, abandoned machinery and old quarries in evidence. There are the shells of scuppered ships by the coast and a stunning view of the surrounding harbour and hillsides of the Port Hills to the south and Banks Peninsula to the north. There are swimming beaches on the northern side and a family-friendly picnic spot close to the ferry jetty.

 

CRATER RIM WALKWAY

Ease of access: Depending on section to be walked, access to Summit Road is via Evans Pass Road or Dyers Pass Road from the city side, Dyers Pass Road from the Lyttelton side or Gebbies Pass Road. There are a variety of pull-ins or basic car parks along the road. Various walking trails from the suburbs lead up to Summit Road. There is no direct public transport access, although it can be reached via the Christchurch Gondola which is serviced by a shuttle bus and bus 28

Time: To walk the full length of the crater rim (about 20km one-way) would take all day, but it is easily divided into a multitude of short sections of varying lengths

The views from the Crater Rim Walkway are stunning on a clear day. To the north are the Southern Alps which stand tall behind the city of Christchurch. On the other side is Lyttelton harbour and Banks Peninsula and towards Gebbies Pass it is possible to see Lake Ellesmere. The Bridle Path, Godley Head track and Rapaki track all lead up to the Crater Rim walkway. A favourite section to consider is between the Sign of the Kiwi and the Sign of the Bellbird, two resthouses that sit by Summit Road. Another good spot is around Gibraltar rock.

Wildlife of New Zealand

When most people think of New Zealand, they think of grand vistas, towering mountains, reflective lakes and sweeping glaciers. But whilst it wasn’t top of my considerations when I first moved here 5.5 years ago, I’ve discovered that it is a country brimming with wildlife too, many of which is endemic to (can only be found in) New Zealand. The country has long flaunted its clean, green image, and whilst there are certainly those who would argue the truth in that, there is certainly no denying that this country is brimming with countryside, nature areas and untouched wilderness. Coming from the UK where every inch of the place has been conquered, owned and settled on, I still find it astounding that there are parts of New Zealand where people just haven’t and can’t set foot. Vast hectares of the southwest are like a jungle and many of the southern fjords remain accessible only by boat.

With no native land mammals, the native birds grew flightless, and in some cases large. Although the giant Moa and its hunter the giant Haast’s Eagle, have long since been made extinct by the arrival of man, New Zealand still remains an island nation of flightless and ground nesting birds. Unfortunately, the accidental and deliberate introduction of mammals and pest species has left some species extinct, and others critically endangered, but find the right piece of forest and the cacophany of birdlife in the canopy brings goosebumps. It is a bird enthusiast’s paradise here, and nowhere else in the world is there an alpine parrot, who’s cheeky antics are always a joy to watch.

With mile after mile of coastline, the seas around New Zealand are breeming with incredibly diverse marine life from the smallest plankton to some of the largest marine mammals in the world. On land, sea and air, there is always something to see if you know where to look.

MAMMALS

Sperm Whale

These behemoths are most consistently spotted off the coast of Kaikoura in the South Island. The 1200m deep Kaikoura Canyon just 500m off shore leads out into the Hikurangi Trench, a 3000m submarine canyon that skirts north past the North Island. This depth houses a submarine world that includes giant squid, the favoured diet of the 56-ton male sperm whales that reside here. Viewed either by plane where the whole body can be appreciated, or by boat where you can get up close to watch them idle at the surface then dive to the depths.

 

Bryde’s Whale

Similar in size and shape to the Minke whale, the best place to see these shy whales is the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island.

 

Bottlenose Dolphin

These large dolphins are best spotted in the Hauraki Gulf and around the Bay of Islands in the North Island.

 

Dusky Dolphin

These playful and acrobatic dolphins are smaller than the bottlenose dolphin. Best spotted off the Kaikoura coastline in the South Island. Although difficult to spot in this photo, there are two dorsal fins poking up in this photograph.

 

Hector’s Dolphin

Like the almost identical Maui’s Dolphin, these are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They are also unusual in having a rounded dorsal fin unlike other dolphins that have a pointed fin. They are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world. The most consistent place to spot them is off the coast of Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch, particularly around Akaroa, although they can be seen up and down the eastern coast of the South Island.

 

New Zealand Fur Seal (kekeno)

Although they look fat and uncoordinated on land, they are acrobats and outstanding hunters in the water. Recovering from years of historical hunting following the habitation of New Zealand, they are abundantly spotted up and down the coastline of the South Island. Guaranteed places to spot them are the coastline of Kaikoura Peninsula, Banks Peninsula near Akaroa, Cape Foulwind near Westport and the outer coastline of both Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland.

New Zealand Fur Seal

 

European Rabbit

One of many deliberately introduced pest species, these non-native rabbits and hares are most easily spotted in open pastures. The Ministry of Primary Industries estimate their presence in New Zealand results in $50M of lost production and so there are multiple methods in place to reduce their numbers.

 

BIRDS

Kea

The world’s only alpine parrot, these immensely intelligent and fascinating birds are a much-loved sighting in the mountains of the South Island where they are endemic. They have easily become my favourite bird since moving to New Zealand. The most consistent place to spot them is around Arthur’s Pass on the west coast road in the Southern Alps. As they associate humans with both food and toys, they are more than happy to come right up to you, and have been known to work in mobs as decoys whilst they steal your belongings.

 

North Island Kākā

This vulnerable species is another endemic parrot species, living at lower altitudes than the Kea, in low-mid altitude forests. Infrequently spotted in wilderness areas, the Zealandia Sanctuary in the capital city of Wellington offers near-guaranteed sightings of these playful birds.

 

New Zealand Falcon (Kārearea)

The only falcon in New Zealand, they are more commonly spotted in the South Island, especially around bush or the high country. This particular bird was one of two that kept me company at the summit of Roys Peak by Wanaka.

 

Tui

Another endemic bird, they have a beautiful song which is a lovely accompaniment to a woodland walk. With their puffy white bib they have a distinctive look, and are more easily spotted in the North Island, although they are present in the South Island albeit to a lesser degree.

 

Bellbird (Korimako)

For me, this endemic bird has the most beautiful song of all the forest dwellers of New Zealand. I love listening to them when I’m out hiking in the bush. Commonly spotted in the woodlands of both islands.

 

House Sparrow

One of many introduced bird species, I’m used to these birds from growing up in Scotland, but I’ve been struck by how much bolder the New Zealand descendants are. Commonly spotted in rural and urban zones, they are a regular visitor to outdoor cafe tables in the city as they brazenly look for wayward crumbs.

 

Song Thrush

Another introduced species, these can be spotted in woodland areas and occasionally urban gardens.

 

New Zealand Fantail

These playful little birds love flitting through the trees as you walk by. The more common variety has a grey back and yellow belly, but there is also a colour morph in the South Island which is black.

 

North Island Saddleback

Even if you can’t see these birds, boy do you know if they’re around: they’re an incredibly noisy bird. An endemic species, they have seen a local resurgence at the Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington after having previously been extinct on the mainland.

 

Yellowhammer

Introduced from Europe, this pretty little bird loves nothing more than a tree to perch on near open land to sing its song from.

 

Eurasian Blackbird

Introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the blackbird is now the most widely distributed bird in the country and is commonly seen in rural and urban areas.

 

Chaffinch

Another introduced and widely distributed garden and arboreal bird.

 

North Island Brown Kiwi

The species of bird that New Zealand is probably most globally famous for, these birds are actually very difficult to see in the wild and it is said that most human Kiwis (natives of New Zealand) will never see their avian namesake in the wild during their lifetime. The best chance of seeing a kiwi is actually in Stewart Island where they aren’t so strictly nocturnal. This particular bird was rescued following an injury and is now used for education at a wildlife sanctuary in Northland.

 

California Quail

Introduced as game from North America, they are established in pockets of the North and South Islands and are found fossicking around the undergrowth.

 

Takahē

One of many of New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, originally there was both a North Island and South Island variety, but the former is extinct. Even the latter was thought to have been lost to history but surviving birds were discovered and thanks to intensive conservation efforts it survives. Most of the population (just 306 in 2016) survives on predator-free offshore islands, but it is possible to see them wandering in Zealandia in Wellington as well as in Te Anau in Fiordland where there is a captive breeding programme.

 

Pūkeko

Known by its Māori name in New Zealand, it is known by the rather less interesting name of Australasian Swamphen in other countries. I fell in love with this bird when I moved to New Zealand and love their comical look and walk. Easily found around wetland areas.

 

Spur-Winged Plover

Like their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these birds are often sighted around wetlands, or pastures. Their call is quite distinctive.

 

Canada Goose

Widespread in the South Island, but localised in patches of the North Island, these large geese are best spotted on grassland close to waterways.

 

Weka

Another one of New Zealand’s flightless birds, I’ve often overheard tourists confusing these guys for kiwi. Spotted in a variety of habitats from woodland to the coast, mainly in the South Island.

 

Pied Stilt

A distinctive wetland or estuary bird.

 

White-Faced Heron

First spotted in the 1940s, these are a very common heron spotted nationwide around waterways.

 

Black Swan

Spending most of my life in Scotland, I grew up with white swans. Initially a novelty seeing black swans, they’ve quickly become my norm here. Evident in waterways in both the North and South Island.

 

Grey Teal

The largest concentration of these ducks is Canterbury in the South Island although they can be found in the North Island also.

 

Mallard

Commonly spotted in urban rivers and lakes as much as in rural regions, and present in both the North and South Islands. One of the game species allowed to be hunted during the shooting season. Hunting is very popular here with an estimated 500,000 mallards and hybrids shot every year.

 

Paradise Shelduck

Another of New Zealand’s endemic birds, I think they have the cutest ducklings of any duck species I know. Widely visible nationwide, including in urban parks. The fluffy ducklings are a common sight in spring in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens.

 

Blue Duck (Whio)

If you see one of these, you are very lucky. Endemic to New Zealand they are Nationally Endangered due to both predation from introduced mammals and competition for resources. They have a preference for high quality water and reside in very small geographic pockets. I was lucky enough to spot this solitary whio in Tongariro National Park.

 

New Zealand Scaup

Found on the many lakes of New Zealand nationwide.

 

Variable Oyster Catcher

Commonly-spotted shoreline bird nationwide.

 

Pied Shag

Of the 36 species of shag worldwide, 12 of them are found in New Zealand. This species is the most commonly spotted, seen singly or in groups around coastal regions.

 

King Shag

Exceptionally rare (836 were recorded in 2015), these endemic shags only reside in the Marlborough Sounds and specifically on just 4 special rocky sites. They may not look anything special, but to see such a rare bird is a true privilege.

 

Spotted Shag

Another endemic shag species, mainly spotted in the South Island. In this photograph, the spotted shag are behind the king shag.

 

Stewart Island Shag

Another endemic species of shag, generally around the southern parts of the South Island and Stewart Island. There are two colour morphs, both of which are seen in the photograph.

 

Little Blue Penguin

The smallest species of penguin, these are the same as Fairy Penguins in Australia. The outer reach of Akaroa harbour on Banks Peninsula, South Island is one of the more reliable places to spot these little guys, but I also saw one whilst kayaking off the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island. Otherwise, there are rescued ones on display at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, where a home is provided for injured birds that won’t survive in the wild.

 

Fiordland Crested Penguin

An endemic species of penguin, these penguins are localised to the south-west of the South Island and the coast of Stewart Island. Listed as vulnerable, I was lucky enough to see 6 of them swimming as 3 pairs whilst on a nature cruise in Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park.

 

Southern Black-backed Gull

Similar to their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these are a common sighting around New Zealand’s coastal regions. Bigger than the other gulls they can be a bit of a bully.

 

Red-billed Gull

The most common gull sighting around the country, they are easily spotted nationwide.

 

Southern Royal Albatross

One of the two largest species of Albatross in the world, seeing these large birds is an awesome sight. Spending the vast majority of their life at sea, they come to land only to breed. Most of the world’s breeding sites are on offshore and uninhabited islands, but on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin in the South Island, it is possible to visit the only mainland breeding colony in the world.

 

Australasian Gannet

Their Northern Hemisphere counterpart has always been my favourite seabird growing up in Scotland. Not as commonly spotted as in my native land, the best place to see them is Cape Kidnappers to the east of Napier in the North Island. Here there are 3 colonies that nest in the breeding season.

 

REPTILES

Tuatara

New Zealand’s endemic reptile, tuatara are the only surviving lizard of their order, which started 200 million years ago. In other words, there were tuatara around when the dinosaurs existed. They are exceptionally difficult to spot in the wild and are under threat from predators. Most people’s best bet of seeing them is at a zoo, however, Zealandia in Wellington has a small number that live a semi-wild existence, and if you are lucky, you can see them in the undergrowth when visiting there.

 

Green Gecko

There are multiple subspecies of green gecko that are endemic to New Zealand. Due to predation, they are now very rare. Seeing one in the wild would be a sheer fluke, but several wildlife centres have them on display. These guys were at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, New Zealand.

 

INSECTS & ARACHNIDS

Chorus Cicada

The sound of thrumming from these abundant endemic insects is one of my favourite sounds of summer. Found nationwide wherever there are trees, they are at their peak in January and February.

 

Brown Cricket

Crickets are a common accompaniment to hikes up mountains where the size and colour of the cricket can vary depending on the altitude.

 

Green Cricket

Smaller than the brown crickets, I have been regularly hit on the face by these as they jump away when I’m out hiking.

 

Squeaking Longhorn Beetle

Another creature endemic to New Zealand, they have long antennae, and are spotted seasonally from spring to autumn.

 

Huhu Beetle

The largest of New Zealand’s endemic beetles, they are capable of flying. They are best spotted in and around forests as their grubs love rotting wood.

 

Cave Weta

Another endemic insect, there are 60 subspecies of cave weta. Despite their name they are often found outside of caves in the forest, but I spotted this large collection down an old mine entrance near Wellington.

 

Stick Insect

Probably one of the hardest insects to spot due to their incredible camouflage, they are actually very abundant throughout New Zealand.

 

Honey Bee

Like many places, these guys are in decline, but due to the market for Manuka honey products, they are often farmed and seen easily in the summer months out and about.

 

Monarch Butterfly

Probably the most striking butterfly, they are found nationwide. I’ve ended up having to handle these loads because my cat’s favourite game in summer is to grab them, bring them inside the house and let them go.

 

Kawakawa Moth

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide.

 

Carove’s Giant Dragonfly

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide, although more commonly on the western half.

 

Glowworm

The most beautiful light in the darkness is that created by the larvae that cling to caves and forest walls and light up at night to entice their prey. The most famous caves to see these are those of Waitomo in the North Island, and the glowworm caves near Te Anau in the South Island is another pay-to-enter cave with guaranteed sightings. However, there are many places to spot them for free if you know where to go, just ask the locals. They are hard to photograph unless you are a professional with the equipment to match. These faint twinkling lights were seen at Abbey Caves near Whangarei in Northland.

 

White-tailed Spider

Introduced from Australia, there is a North Island variety and a South Island variety. They are bold spiders that hunt other spiders. They also move quickly and have been known to bite people and pets.

 

AQUATIC/OCEAN LIFE

Cave Lobster

I didn’t even know it was possible to see these in inland caves until I came across one whilst exploring Abbey Caves near Whangarei in the North Island.

 

Crayfish (kōura)

Similar to lobsters, the particular species found around New Zealand are endemic to these waters, with a separate variety between the North and South islands. They are a popular seafood to eat in the country, and the name of the town Kaikoura incorporates the crayfish, translating to ‘eat crayfish’. Best spotted on your dinner plate or if you are a scuba diver.

 

Cockles

Another popular seafood, these are often spotted in the tidal zone on beach walks.

 

Eleven-Armed Sea Star

The largest starfish of New Zealand.

 

Black Coral

Normally growing in deep water due to their preference for darkness, the tannin that leaches into the Fiordland waters creates a false darkness that allows the coral to grow relatively close to the surface. The internal structure is black (hence the name), but they appear white on the outside.

 

Fish

The waters around New Zealand are rife with life, with many fish species to be found if you are a scuba diver or a fisherman.

 

Helicopter Hill

I love the image of hiking through snow under a beautiful blue sky with the yellow orb of the sun shining overhead, but the reality is that getting out into the wilderness in the winter months takes skills that I don’t have. So inevitably, my hiking has a season, and come April it is starting to wind down as the days get noticeably short and the weather turns. Without the northern hemisphere’s luxury of having Christmas and New Year to break up the winter blues, I spend the winter months here counting down till September, the start of spring when I can start thinking about getting back to the mountains. The previous summer I’d managed to tick off a lot of mountains on my wish-list, leaving just a handful within reach of Christchurch still to summit. Unfortunately the weather of the summer just passed fell short and I barely had much opportunity to get into the mountains. So when a lovely April Sunday presented itself, I was keen to get into the Southern Alps and tick one off the list.

It takes about an hour to even reach the mountains from Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island, but on the west coast road, State Highway (SH) 73, there are plenty of mountains to choose from. Passing Trig M which I’d hiked the summer before last, I continued for another half hour past the rock feature of Castle Hill, and the lookout at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, before turning in at Craigieburn Forest Park and parking up at the campground. As it turned out, I hadn’t paid much attention to the starting altitude, looking only at the summit and feeling it was a good one to add to the list of mountains >1000m (>3281ft) that I’ve hiked in New Zealand. With the car park at 800m (2624ft), it turns out this was a good cheat hike: the stunning views but without a lot of climbing. I was up and down in 3hrs.

As the sun was noticeably low at the end of April, upon entering the forest at the start of the Mistletoe track, I was plunged into a cold shade on the lee of the mountain. In places some dappled sunshine broke through the trees, but it was almost a little chilly in the shaded sections. Sticking with the Mistletoe track at the track junction, it was a pleasant enough forest walk and there were actually several other people on the trail. Eventually as the track hugged into the cold, shaded flank of Helicopter Hill, it began its zig-zag up the mountainside. Only after gaining about 250m (820ft) did the trees open up to give a hint of the view.

 

Whilst Helicopter Hill’s summit is 1256m (4121ft), it is absolutely dwarfed by most of the mountains that surround it. Looking out at this first view point, I could see over the top of the forest and beyond to the tree-less slopes of the Craigieburn Range that include the Broken River ski field. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue: a gorgeous day to go hiking. Beyond here, there wasn’t much further to go to reach the turn-off to the Helicopter Hill track that leads up to the summit. This junction meets a mountain biking trail and there were lots of bikers out that day too.

 

The whole way up the summit track there was a view to be had in at least one direction if not more. Rocky and loose under foot in places, it was an easily followed path through shrubbery and open vegetation. The peak behind me had a distinctive cone-like summit and as I gained altitude, I could see the buildings of the ski centre in the distance more clearly. I reached the summit just as some of the bikers were leaving and I had it to myself, or so I thought. Some rustling drew my attention to a tree near the summit and I saw a bird of prey sitting majestically at the top. It took to the wing before I could get a photo, and I watched it thermal out of view, leaving me on my own.

 

The view was beautiful. Far below me SH 73 curled through the valley, and the tiny vehicles occasionally glistened as they caught a bit of sun. Many of the surrounding peaks have no name, but there wasn’t a shortage to look at. After enjoying my lunch in the sunshine, I started to head back down the rocky track, passing a group of bikers carrying their bikes up the track. I lost traction in a couple of places underfoot, catching myself before I fell, then before long, I was alerted by some noise behind me to the bikers hurtling down the track towards me. There are many shared hike and bike tracks in New Zealand, but this was probably the most dangerous one I’d been on. The bikers gave no consideration to me hiking the track and I had to keep ducking into a bush to get out their way. Not an always an easy feat when the bush is at the top of a large drop off the mountainside.

 

Back down at the track junction there were even more mountain bikers. None of the hikers I’d met on the Mistletoe Track were anywhere to be seen, but there was a plethora of people out riding that day. To make the hike longer, I chose to return via the Luge track. This stays on a roughly even altitude plane for quite some distance before eventually dropping down the mountainside towards the road that leads up to the ski field. This track though was the main descent for the bikers, so I had to give way time and again as they sped towards and past me. At the bottom, there was a bubbling stream to cross, and out I popped onto the unsealed access road. From here, it was just a matter of following the road down the hill to where I’d parked my car. A much shorter mountain hike than I’m used to, it was a nice autumnal stretch of the legs. A great view for comparatively little effort. What more could you want from a hike?

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.

But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.

SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.

And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.

 

Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.

The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Strait. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.

 

Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.

 

Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.

 

After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).

With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.

 

After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.

 

The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.

 

It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.

 

Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.

Mount Fyffe

Since moving to New Zealand 5.5yrs ago I’ve summited a good few mountains, often with peaks that are around the same height as or taller than, the tallest mountain of my homeland, Scotland. But the actual altitude gain of the hike varies quite a lot. An impressive summit height is not always reached by way of an equally impressive altitude gain, depending on how far into the mountains the starting point is. But standing on the Kaikoura Peninsula looking inland at the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges of the Southern Alps, my hike for the day looked daunting. For this time round I would be starting close to sea level, and there was a lot of mountain to climb.

 

In February whilst up in Kaikoura for a long weekend, it was the Monday when the conditions were right to head up, and I set off after breakfast down the back roads to reach the carpark. But these back roads were actually a bit of an adventure as repairs following the November 14th earthquake were under way and the road conditions were interesting to say the least. The latter section of the drive on Postmans Road is unsealed and where it went up a steep embankment, my car lost traction on the stony track. Thankfully no-one was coming in the other direction. Parked up and kitted out, I was then ready to set off.

The track itself is a well-defined 4×4 track, quite wide although in places the substrate can be slippy under foot. In the lower section, there was evidence of recent landslips, evidence of the earthquake and some of the rains that have fallen since. It is a steady and zig-zagging climb surrounded by trees with the initial views being of the river valley where the braided Kowhai river snakes through on route to the Pacific Ocean which is also just visible beyond the flatness of the Canterbury Plains to the east. There were portions of this lower section that were shaded, but once the zig-zagging stopped, the rest of the hike was almost completely exposed to the elements, so under a nearly-cloudless sky, I was slapping on the sunscreen like it was going out of fashion. I learnt early on that my Scottish skin burns in little time at all in the Southern Hemisphere summer so from November through to March, I’m permanently shiny with the oil effect of sun lotion.

 

I was enjoying this hike from very early on, and despite being overtaken by a few other hikers, I still felt I was maintaining a good pace. With increasing height, it was possible to appreciate the Kaikoura Peninsula starting to jut out into the Pacific Ocean as well as the peak of Mt Fyffe in the distance, and eventually a lookout was reached on a little flat outcrop of land from where the Kowhai River could be seen snaking across the plains. Continuing on from here, the track continued onwards until it reached an area overlooking Sandy Saddle where the mountains behind Mt Fyffe were the dominant view. The Kaikoura Ranges were a beautiful and staggering view with their steep sides and green vegetation, and sneaking in and out of sight in the valley below was the upper reaches of the Kowhai River. There were puffs of clouds above these inland mountains but otherwise it was exceptionally clear.

 

There was a short flat section before once again the gradient steepened and the track zig-zagged again. The view was staggering in every direction and already I was approaching the 1000m (3281ft) mark and beyond. Then further along the track, a junction appeared where the Spaniard Spur track offers a steep descent down to the Kowhai River. From here it is just a few minutes walk to the Mt Fyffe Hut at 1100m (3609ft) where there is a drop toilet and the ability to sleep, shelter and cook. There was a couple there that had come up the day before in the bad weather and camped the night, waking up to a beautiful sunrise. From here, the view out to the Kaikoura Peninsula was unobstructed and I can only imagine how amazing that dawn view would have been from there.

 

Leaving the hut and several other hikers behind, I continued on up the summit track which is narrower, cutting through a copse, before again starting its long snaking wind up the ridgeline. The stony ground was a slip hazard in places and I passed several people heading down from the summit. The further I walked I could now see some clouds whipping down into the valley between the two lines of mountains and I always find it fascinating watching the clouds form, swirl, then disperse. I imagined what it would have felt like to have been up Mt Fyffe the night of the earthquake as I saw large stones and boulders littered across the path. It’s one thing to feel a large earthquake when you are home in your own bed away from the epicentre, but I think it would have been very different to be in a hut 1100m (3609ft) up a mountain right over the source.

 

Higher still there were some sections of walking through tightly packed bushes, and eventually I reached a sign denoting 1500m (4921ft). It was incredible to look back down at the ridgeline already hiked and the Pacific Ocean was now a huge expanse spreading out to the east. The cloud was really starting to build up now over the valley at times obliterating the view of the neighbouring mountains. But still the track climbed higher until close to the summit it felt like I was walking into the cloud. I reached Mt Fyffe summit at 1602m (5256ft) just as the last people there were leaving, and so I had it to myself.

 

Looking west, the cloud bank was now thick and it swirled upwards to hover above my head where it was dissipating in a wisp that looked like a large wave about to break. Out east though, the coastline was mostly clear and Kaikoura lay sprawled out below me, stretching along the coastline of the peninsula. The Pacific Ocean shimmered by its side. A couple of picnic benches were handily placed to give a rest spot with a view. It was a little chilly now with the altitude and the clouds overhead, and unfortunately the view west was mostly obliterated, but I enjoyed my lunch in peace and quiet, only being joined by another hiker when I was getting ready to leave.

 

As I returned to the track to head down, the swirling clouds gave me sneaky peaks of the mountains hidden behind them and it really split the view in two. There was still plenty of people heading up as I was going down, by now in the early afternoon. The hut seemed deserted when I reached it again and now there were large shadows created by the clouds behind and to the side of me. The best of the weather is always in the mornings in the mountains, so it pays to set off early for the best views. But as the altitude started to drop away, and the track moved south, the clouds were left behind and the sunshine remained, treating me to a very pleasant walk back to my car. The view steadily dropped away again until I was back amongst the trees, snaking my way down the final decline towards my waiting car. I had a long drive back to Christchurch to get under way, and first I had to negotiate the track that I had lost traction on on the way in. Thankfully my car managed the incline in reverse without problems, and picking my way past the potholes, missing verge and diggers, I made my way back to Kaikoura, and set off on the long drive home.

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